Women's Eagles Sevens: the need to overachieve

BOULDER, Colo. – The Women’s Eagles Sevens missed out on their first opportunity to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games thanks to England’s superior margin of points scored during the 2014-15 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series.

The Team GB representative also won both head-to-head matchups with the U.S., which will now travel to Cary, N.C., June 13-14 for the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships. In fact, the Eagles have only beaten England once in the Series’ history, a Plate Semifinal victory at Atlanta 7s in 2014.

It was only two years ago that the two contested the Cup Final at Houston 7s at BBVA Compass Stadium. At the end of that inaugural season, which featured four legs, the U.S. secured fourth place with 48 points, trailing third-place Canada by four points and Series champion New Zealand by 26.

Head Coach Ric Suggitt knew then that the Eagles were not going to progress up the rankings by being complacent. Crossover camps were held at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., throughout 2013, where future residents like Lorrie Clifford and Alev Kelter were found.

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In total, 20 athletes earned at least one Series appearance in the 2013-14 season, and only Lauren Doyle, Victoria Folayan, Kelly Griffin, Jillion Potter, and Amelia Villines played in all five tournaments. Shaina Turley of the Women’s Eagles earned a cap and Olympic bobsledder Elana Meyers-Taylor tried her hand at the fastest-growing team sport in America, as well, as the coaching staff fiddled with combinations to find the right mix.

Megan Bonny and Kathryn Johnson attended two and four tournaments, respectively, with the Eagles in 2013-14, and were among six players to be awarded jerseys for all six tournaments of the most recent season.

“Last year I flipped people around quite a bit,” Suggitt said. “I had a good look at everyone and saw where they might fit into the puzzle. Megan and ‘KJ,’ to a certain degree, have stepped up their game and they needed to.

“It’s good, healthy competition. It’s a good spot to be in.”

Kelter became a mainstay with the Eagles, AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American Kristen Thomas joined the team after the first leg of the season in Dubai, and Joanne Fa’avesi and Kate Zackary were scouted early in the competition calendar to provide powerful, go-forward runs.

While Suggitt says the turning point in the season occurred at the final whistle of the Eagles’ Seventh-Place Match victory at Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens, the head coach believes the consistency in selection was a main contributing factor in the Eagles’ rise in the standings.

Of the 20 athletes selected in 2013-14, 10 played in just one or two of five tournaments, while 14 of the 18 selected in 2014-15 appeared in at least three of the six legs.

The lead-by-example play of veterans Doyle, Griffin, and Folayan – three of the seven most-capped players in the Series’ three-year history – was also vital in the Eagles’ improvements this season. Folayan scored 32 tries to finish the season in third in both tries and points scored, while Doyle was not far behind in eighth in tries scored with 21.

The return of Bui Baravilala – another original Resident – prior to Atlanta 7s was another boost to the Eagles, as the Hawaiian native successfully converted 31 tries and scored five of her own while combining with Kelter to provide quick ball on the attack.

Despite the rise from seventh to fourth/fifth and the stability in selection for the Eagles, Suggitt’s team will have to continue to challenge Australia, Canada, England, and New Zealand on a consistent basis if it is to compete for a medal in Rio de Janeiro.

“What we still have to deal with is the maturity, and our maturity is not where it needs to be yet,” Suggitt said. “I don’t think everyone does their jobs completely and I’ve told them that. I’m not shy about letting them know that we still need to overachieve in certain categories.”

Prognosticators called for the U.S. to have a similarly-disappointing season to that of the 2013-14 campaign, but few said defeats of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were possible.

Check USARugby.org Thursday, June 11, for more on the Women’s Eagles Sevens as they prepare for the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships.

Catch the Eagles at the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., June 13-14. Tickets are available from $15 for single-day admittance, with weekend passes and group discounts available. The fixture list for the regional qualification tournament can be found on the NACRA Sevens event page.